With a core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, it’s clear the Minnesota Timberwolves have exciting times ahead. When you add a leader such as Chris Finch — who has perennial Coach of the Year potential — into the mix, things only get better.
The Wolves exceeded expectations by not only making the playoffs, but by hanging tough with the No. 2 seeded Memphis Grizzlies, bringing their bright future to center stage.
A matchup between these two teams (Grizzlies average age was 24, Wolves was 24.9) built plenty of intrigue at the time, but also set the stage for future battles that are sure to deliver.
In the spirit of looking toward the future (something Wolves fans have had to do all too much), let’s review the Western Conference and see where Minnesota sits among their conference foes in terms of long-term promise.
Before comparing teams, it’s important to create a set of criteria that’ll be used to determine these rankings/analyses. The combination of young talent, future first-round picks, current roster, and future salary cap situation are things that’ll be taken into consideration.
With that in mind, there are a few teams we can definitively say aren’t quite on the Wolves’ level of near-future promise.
Tier 5: Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets
This tier includes teams that are rebuilding, set to rebuild in the near future, lacking a sense of direction, etc.
Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are all question marks. Unless their high draft picks are instant successes (to a massive degree), or they make blockbuster trades, they’ll likely still be rebuilding or near the bottom the conference for the next 2-4 years. All three of these teams have nice young talent, but not enough to be competitive in the next few years.
What’s going on in Portland is anyone’s guess. Would it be surprising if they traded Damian Lillard this summer and went full rebuild? With the current state of this roster, not really. Would it be surprising if they felt forced to go all-in on trades/free agency to keep Lillard around and got players like Zach Lavine or Bradley Beal? Also no. The Blazers could make some moves that would launch them up a tier or two, but my (potentially too optimistic) gut tells me the Wolves will be better than the Blazers for the next 2-4 years.
Speaking of “I have no idea what’s going on,” here are the Kings. Trading away Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis made them better right now (I guess?), but their future is up in the air. They do have all of their FRPs (in addition to a ton of seconds), which is a big plus.
The hiring of Mike Brown should bring some stability, as should Sabonis in his first full year with the team.
Tier 4: Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers
Here’s where things get interesting.
Utah seems to be on the decline, with the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert beef brewing and their lack of perimeter defense showing in the playoffs. Their young talent is minimal, and they also don’t have their first-round pick this year or in 2024. They’re certainly still a good team, but it seems as if they have nowhere to go but down unless they make some drastic changes.
On the topic of lacking young talent, the Lakers’ situation is less than ideal. Their cap situation/roster structure is a thing of nightmares. Talen Horton-Tucker is their young talent, and is coming off a disappointing season that cast doubt on his long-term potential impact in Los Angeles. They’re missing their first-round picks this offseason and in 2024, while also having to swap firsts with the Pelicans next year.
Because of LeBron James’ recruiting ability and the incredible talent between him and Anthony Davis when fully healthy, I may eat my words on this. However, it’s going to be a tall order to right the ship for the Lakers, and doing so with a first-year head coach may make that order even taller.
Because the Jazz have peaked with their current roster and the Lakers’ many question marks, it seems as if the Wolves have more promise than these two teams.
Tier 3: New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ok, for real this time, this is where things get interesting.
The Pelicans impressed in their first-round matchup with the Phoenix Suns, pushing them to six games. Willie Green has turned out to be an excellent hire and CJ McCollum played very well after being sent to New Orleans near the trade deadline.
Their success this year came without Zion Williamson, one of the most promising young players in the league. If and when Zion signs his rookie extension, the Pelicans are certainly on the come up and have plenty of promise heading into the next two or three years.
The Nuggets will be getting some much-welcomed reinforcements next year, assuming Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. come back healthy. Those two and back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic form a formidable trio, one that will surely dominate on the offensive end for years to come. However, they’ll also dominate the majority of the Nuggets’ cap space, which, outside of Aaron Gordon, might make it hard to maintain a well-rounded roster. Bones Hyland was yet another nice draft day steal (nicely done, Tim) that’ll help the Nuggets win now and also remain young.
Denver is in this tier because of the money that’s tied up with Murray and Porter Jr. Both are great players, but have yet to prove that they are max-level assets. I’d pay bubble Jamal Murray whatever he wants, but is that the real him? Porter is immensely talented, but that doesn’t do much good when he’s hurt. Not to mention he’s one of the worst defensive wings in the league. There’s tons of upside here, but it’s unlikely everything clicks at the same time.
Although they have the best player among these four teams, the Mavericks fall just short on the “elite future” list. Luka by himself nearly vaults them into that spot, but will there ever be enough around him to get them to and through the finals? We’ll see. The continued development of Jalen Brunson as a Robin (if he stays in Dallas, of course), plus Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith, have supplied Luka with more help than ever before, which is a step in the right direction.
This is the tier Wolves fall into. Towns, Edwards, McDaniels and Finch are truly the core of a promising next 3-5 years. Edwards and McDaniels being just 20 and 21 years old, respectively, creates an entirely possible world in which that 3-5 years stretches to about 4-7. With nearly $60 million coming off the books one year from now, the Wolves have incredible flexibility to add to their core. The D’Angelo Russell situation is one to monitor, but the outcome isn’t likely to crater or boom the Wolves’ future, one way or the other.
Tier 2: Phoenix Suns
I know, I know, the Suns aren’t in a great spot right now. The Deandre Ayton situation is concerning, but I can’t blame them for not wanting to pay a center like Ayton $30+ million when they’ve got other contracts to worry about. I like Ayton a lot, but signing him to a max deal might end up doing more harm than good. Plus, the play of Bismack Biyombo and JaVale McGee in Ayton’s absence this year proved that Ayton’s role may not be worth the max. How much of that was driven by Chris Paul is arguable, but with Paul’s contract guaranteed for two more seasons, the decision should be made keeping in mind the CP3 effect.
Regardless of that situation, it seems that at least Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson will be in Phoenix for a while. At worst, they could get a solid return for Paul and potentially do a sign-and-trade for Ayton. That might not leave them in a better spot, but they wouldn’t be completely screwed. They also have all of their picks, which can be used as ammunition in trades or potential hits.
Tier 1: Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors
The Grizzlies are nearly in a tier of their own when it comes to “bright futures.” Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. (front loaded contract, nice) anchor their roster, but they have solid supplementary pieces around those three. Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke will be free agents after this upcoming year, but if they retain them (and maybe Tyus Jones?) they will have locked in a spot in the first or second round of the playoffs for years.
A true tip of the cap to the front office over there in Memphis, as they have all of their FRPs for the foreseeable future (including two this year and two in 2024). Not that having those picks is tremendously valuable for contenders, but whether they continue to draft well or trade them to upgrade their roster, they are in a fantastic place.
While the Clippers aren’t on the same level as the Grizzlies in terms of young talent, I can’t overlook how good this team can be when fully healthy. With Paul George and Kawhi Leonard locked up for at least the next two seasons (along with Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Marcus Morris), there’s no reason to doubt this team could win it all the next two years.
Could they use a true point guard to take some of the playmaking burden off of George and Reggie Jackson? Sure. Even with a small lack of playmaking, they have more than enough to make deep playoff runs.
Although aging, the Warriors are still an elite squad that’s proven they can compete with anyone and have shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Regardless of their NBA Finals outcome, they’ll likely be running it back with essentially the same group next year. They do have some cap navigation to do (Andrew Wiggins new deal? Jordan Poole extension?), but that shouldn’t be detrimental to their success. We’ll have to wait and see with James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, but that’s a nice amount of young talent (plus Poole).
In summary, the Wolves are among the conference leaders when considering the next 2-4 years, with Towns as the current best player and All-NBA cornerstone, Edwards as an up-and-coming star, McDaniels emerging as a fantastic two-way option, etc.
With new leadership — at both head coach and in the front office — it seems as if this isn’t a small blip on the radar. There’s legitimate promise that this team can be successful for years to come, which is incredibly exciting.
While they may not have the amount of young talent as the Grizzlies, or a current roster like the Clippers or Warriors, the Wolves can say they’re in a better situation than most.